When the eccentric North Carolinian filmmaker Onur Tukel moved to New York, he headed straight to the premiere of Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture." Two years later, he's made his own NY movie: "Richard's Wedding" opens Friday.
There’s little about filmmaker Onur Tukel that is conventional. For anyone familiar with the North Carolina native’s past films, which include Ding-a-Ling-Less and The Pigs, Tukel is what most people might refer to as an eccentric. With his shock of unruly hair (both on top of his head as well as that which grows out of his face) and his penchant for wearing ill-sized clothing—the pants are too big, the shirt’s too tight—he’s someone you don’t forget. The thing is, once you do meet the man, you can’t help but like him. He has a puppy dog’s enthusiasm and desire to be liked. He also has an artist’s temperament, which can make him a bit manic at times.
Despite knowing Onur fairly well, I asked him to sit with me recently so I could eke the last drabs of information out of him about his love of filmmaking, and about filming in the city he has adopted as his own.
Adam Schartoff: How does it feel to have finally made your New York film?
Onur Tukel: I moved to New York in 2010 and the goal was to make movies here. I actually planned on moving here about 15 years ago. I was one week away from leaving North Carolina, but then I was at a party and made this rich guy laugh all night. I told him I was a filmmaker, and he said he wanted to write me a check to make a movie. So I ended up staying. I love North Carolina; it will always be my home, and I made three feature films in my twenties when I lived in Wilmington, NC. Then in my thirties, I was less inspired. So that's the reason I moved to NYC: to get inspired again.
With these new breakthroughs in equipment, it's an exciting time to be in the indie game. Shooting with 2 cameras on the streets of New York with a skeleton crew, working with a really passionate intelligent cast, and now screening the movie for a week at the reRun Theater. It's so much fun.
Adam Schartoff: Richard's Wedding is many things at once: a farce, an ensemble comedy, and an homage to New York. When you were writing the film, how did you envision it?
Onur Tukel: I used to love storyboarding my movies, finding specific locations, blocking things out meticulously. On my last movie, The Pigs, I had worked out every detail of the movie on paper but left no room for spontaneity. I had no idea how to make adjustments to scenes that just weren't working; I'd dug myself into a hole by planning too much. The movie did not turn out well, and I lost all of my confidence. Then I was cast in two movies: Michael Tully’s Septien and Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag.
Both Tully and Karpovsky had strong ideas of what they wanted and had no trouble communicating this, but they also seemed to be discovering new things as the production progressed. They were very engaged with all the cast and crew members, very open to ideas. These productions were very collaborative. It was never, "I must have it this way!” It was more, “Oh, let's try that. That could work.” Being a Southern boy who loves Woody Allen, I hoped that my naïvete or lack of experience in the city might result in something new.
Adam Schartoff: Could you have made this movie in North Carolina? Or anywhere else, for that matter?
Onur Tukel: Walking and talking in New York is one of my favorite things to do; the streets are just so energetic and alive. I'm such a huge fan of Woody Allen—my love for the dialogue-driven movie started with him, as did my love for New York. So, no, I wouldn't have wanted to make his movie anywhere but here.
Adam Schartoff: What is it about NYC that you find so damn charming?
Onur Tukel: It’s like I've died and been reborn into a fantasy world of angels and demons and artists and innovators. You ride the subway and you sit down between two people you've never seen before; your hips are touching theirs. And you make eye contact with someone in their 80s sitting across from you. And they smile. And you smile back. And then there's a little girl sitting next to you with a little cage and she's showing everyone her baby turtles. And then some guy breaks out a violin and starts playing it. And then you start talking politics or music with a total stranger. My mind is blown almost every day. I love this city.
Adam Schartoff: Did you have any actors in mind as you wrote the story?
Onur Tukel: One of the first parties I attended when I moved to New York was the premiere party for Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture. Michael Tully brought me along, and then I saw Alex Karpovsky there, and I immediately went up to him and gushed about how much I'd loved him in Andrew Bujalski's Beeswax. Karpovsky and I kept in touch, and I eventually hung out with him during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where Septien premiered. He invited me to a little get-together at the house where Joe Swanberg was staying, and though I made a complete ass of myself at that party, I ended up meeting Jennifer Prediger and Josephine Decker there. So, when I wrote Richard’s Wedding, I wrote specifically for Karpovsky, Prediger and Decker. When Karpvosky couldn't commit, I rewrote his character as a woman and cast Prediger in the role.
Adam Schartoff: And the rest of the cast?
Onur Tukel: The casting was really shaped by the script readings we had in executive producer Andrew Krucoff’s apartment. We had four or five script readings over the course of two months and invited different people to read each time; I shaped the cast based on who seemed to work. The discussions we had after each reading, usually involving alcohol, helped inform my re-writes.
When I couldn't find the right person to play some of the bigger roles, Alex Karpovsky suggested Larry Levine and Darrill Rosen. When I couldn't find the character of Louis, who is so important to the final act, producer DeVoe Yates suggested his friend Randy Gambill. I'd seen Gambill in Observe and Report, where he was very good at physical comedy but had almost no dialogue. He auditioned over Skype and then really worked hard to prove he could handle all the dialogue. He knocked it out of the park. I think everyone did.
Adam Schartoff: There is a lot of dialogue in the movie that people might find offensive or difficult, considering political correctness. Do you feel you have to defend yourself?
Onur Tukel: We're making fun of everyone in this movie. If one race or gender or political party was singled out, I would say, “Yes, that's uncool.” But we’re throwing everyone into the mix. Plus, karma and justice are a big part of this movie. I may be a little hard on Asians in the first act, but by the fourth act, the Asian character gets the last laugh and the person making the Asian joke gets his comeuppance.
Adam Schartoff: I know you include among your influences such luminaries as Woody Allen, John Cassavetes, Whit Stillman and the Duplass Brothers. Were they muses for you? Do you see their hand in the final product?
Onur Tukel: The Duplass Brothers made a film called The Puffy Chair that I love so much. There's a little improvisational wedding scene in the middle of the movie where Mark Duplass' character drunkenly marries two people for fun in a backyard. It's a very touching scene, very romantic. And then in the next scene he dismisses everything he said with one cynical throwaway line, which pisses off his girlfriend. It's so brilliant. I got the idea for Richard’s Wedding after watching this scene. Out of all the wedding scenes I've ever watched, this absurd no-budget masterpiece got it right. I knew then that you could make an entire movie on this premise of a no-frills ceremony with funny dialogue and lots of heart.
Richard Linklater's Tape was very influential as well. The first half of the movie, we see two characters talking in a hotel room about a character who doesn't show up until the final act. I took this approach with a lot of the dialogue in Richard’s Wedding. Even though there are a ton of jokes in the movie, there's a point to almost every conversation, and by the end of the movie, all the dialogue comes full circle. That's one of the things I love about the script of Richard’s Wedding; while the dialogue may seem inconsequential at first, it's all connected to the larger themes and storylines.
Cassavetes’ movies are just so raw, emotionally and technically. We were definitely trying to capture some of that magic with Richard’s Wedding. I'd met the photographers of Richard’s Wedding, Jason Banker and Jorge Torres-Torres, last summer. They showed me a cut of their feature film Toad Road, which is this hybrid narrative-doc horror film that they shot with two cameras. It's beautiful, but really raw. (It premieres at Fantasia Film Festival next month.) I asked them right away if they'd shoot Richard’s Wedding. They were able to capture the madness and energy of all the actors without ever getting in the way. lus, there's a nice balance visually to the movie: we'll have extreme beautifully executed wide-shots that go on for two minutes, and then we'll have a kinetic volley of close-ups and medium shots. It's a very unique look, yet incredibly, it never feels mannered.
There's no one like Whit Stillman. Like a great band who you hear and immediately know who it is, even before the lyrics begin. No one writes like Stillman. Each line of dialogue feels new, like no one has ever said those words before.
I grew up in Taylorsville, NC, watching slasher films. When I got to college, I discovered Woody Allen, and everything changed for me. By the time I graduated, I'd seen everything he'd made up to that point. He continues to make great films in his mid-70s. If I'm lucky enough to keep making movies, I will continue to plagiarize him! People talk about Manhattan, Annie Hall,Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives… but I think Deconstructing Harry is the one I love most. There's so much rage in that movie. I believe that Mia Farrow had just published her tell-all at the time; maybe this is where some of the anger in that film was coming from, but I have no idea. It's a side of Woody Allen I've never seen before—really wicked.
Adam Schartoff: You're a complicated blend of warmth, wit and wickedness. How do you see yourself as a director?
Onur Tukel: I'm a mess…. as a person and a director. I can't hold a girlfriend. I'm scattered. I'm irritable. I'm selfish. I'm sarcastic. I contradict myself a lot. Well, maybe I don't.
But I do love my friends and my family. I know how lucky I am to be in New York and to be able to get out of bed every day. I have steady work as a freelancer for an educational company in the West Village. So as irascible as I am about petty things, I have got a healthy amount of self-awareness, I think. I have nothing to complain about. I have no reason to be angry. I'm incredibly lucky. And when I'm directing, it's like a celebration of all the things I love—friends, creativity, movies, madness!